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Democrats to Revive 'Comprehensive' Immigration Reform?

2:01 PM, Feb 11, 2008 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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From Roll Call:

"There is the formation of a consensus," said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who said he's seen a draft bill. "We're looking at some kind of a compromise. It's still comprehensive in nature but not to the extent we would like..."

But Baca said the key piece for Hispanics is a five-year visa for illegal immigrants who can prove they have a job. The visa is well short of past bills that would grant permanent legal status, which critics decried as "amnesty."

The immigration debate last year showed that this is a huge political minefield for Democrats, but it may be unavoidable for them. There are a number of moderate Democrats who think that they are vulnerable for re-election this year on the issue of illegal immigration, and they feel compelled to push for further measures to deter it. Their legislative vehicle -- so far -- is Congressman Heath Shuler's SAVE bill, which is cosponsored by dozens of moderate Democrats, and which has already got him in hot water with House liberals.

But the strategy seems to be to join Shuler instead of trying to beat him. If they can come up with a politically-salable compromise that moves the country toward 'earned legalization,' then they'll take the half-a-loaf. However, House Republicans with whom I've spoken say there's no chance that they'll compromise on a measure that can in any way be characterized as amnesty (or 'amnesty lite').

This is a dangerous debate for Democrats. It splits their caucus and raises the profile of an issue that may bite them in November. By raising it during the presidential campaign, they may force their candidates to take a position that's bound to anger part of their constituency.

It also makes things more interesting on the Republican side, as presumptive nominee John McCain has previously supported this approach. Having now declared that there needs to be a consensus that the borders are secure before addressing legalization, how will he vote if such a measure passes the House?